The History of the Edmund Fitzgerald & Other Shipwrecks at Whitefish Point

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is surrounded by water, specifically three of the Great Lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Huron & Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are the world’s largest fresh water resource, making up 94,250 mi² of water combined. They are a beautiful natural resource in the pristine wilderness between the United States and Canada, drawing in tourists all year long. However, we can’t forget the dangers these waters have posed to ships and their crews over the last four hundred years, and the sudden storms that can arise out of nowhere.

The best place to learn about these squalls and the ships that perished in them is with the Great Lakes Shipwrecks Historical Society at Whitefish Point.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Whitefish Point is a crucial location in the Upper Peninsula for cargo ships. Located on a northern point of the peninsula, it juts out into Lake Superior at a dangerous spot in the lakes, earning its name as ‘Graveyard of the Great Lakes.’

Since Europeans have been exploring this area in the 1600s, over 6,000 ships have sunk in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society estimates over 30,000 people have lost their lives in these wrecks. You can learn all about these wrecks at the Shipwreck Museum located here in Whitefish Point.

Because Lake Superior specifically was so dangerous, the very first lighthouse in the UP was built on Whitefish Point. It was built and replaced once in the 1800s, and is still in operation today! It was replaced with an light bulb a long time ago, so the lighthouse keepers were no longer needed after 1931, but it remains a crucial piece of the Great Lakes’ history.

You can climb up into the lighthouse for $4, and I’d say it’s worth it. It’s not very tall, but the view from the top is just spectacular. You can walk all the way around the balcony, and a guide goes with you who can tell you all about the lighthouse and its keepers.

The museum also has a boardwalk that heads down to the shores of Lake Superior. You can walk along the shoreline, and even get in the water if you’re really brave! Down a ways is a grave marker for a few of the people who were aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald, so you can stop and find that as well.

Make sure to dress in warm clothes! I was definitely wishing I was wearing jeans that day. The breeze off the water is really chilly, and when you’re up in the lighthouse it’s especially windy!

The Edmund Fitzgerald

The most iconic shipwreck in Lake Superior was the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975. This shipwreck is famous for a few reasons:

  • It’s the most recent wreck in Lake Superior
  • It was a record-setting ship for most cargo and fastest transport
  • It’s a mystery as to the actual cause of the wreck
  • A famous song was written about it
  • A ship just a few miles behind it survived

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter. I see these ships pass by my house multiple times a day carrying cargo through the channels of the Great Lakes. They’re massive, up to 1,000 feet long!

The night the SS Edmund Fitzgerald set sail, it was a bit overloaded. They were trying to haul as much cargo as they could before the end of the shipping season when winter struck. Because the ship was overloaded it was sitting pretty deep in the water, which is fine when it’s calm, but was an issue when an unexpected storm struck Lake Superior.

It was just 20 miles off the coast of Whitefish Point when 30 foot waves started pounding on the deck. They were taking on a lot of water and their radars disappeared so they were sailing blindly into the storm. They were in contact with the SS Arthur M Anderson and the last radio message the captain sent said they were “holding their own.” However, just minutes later the captain of the SS Arthur M Anderson said he could no longer see the lights of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.

There are many paintings of this infamous night.

All 29 crew members died in the Canadian waters that night. In 1995 divers recovered the ship’s bell and it’s in the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. In it’s place under the water, they put a memorial bell with each crew member’s name etched onto the side.

There are many theories as to why the SS Edmund Fitzgerald went down that night. One theory is that the hurricane force winds and 30 foot waves overcame the boat naturally. Another theory is the rogue wave theory, that “three sisters” pummeled the boat, which was already taking on too much water, and they overtook the deck. Other theories revolve around shoaling in an unexpected sandbar, the cargo-hold flooding, and even the ship hitting the ocean floor when coming off a wave and snapping in half.

Whatever the cause, we know the unfortunate end to this ship’s story, and we remember the 29 crew members who lost their lives that night. You can learn even more about this wreck, along with countless others in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.

Lighthouses in the Upper Peninsula

You don’t want to end your day here without visiting lighthouses. Although the lighthouse at Whitefish Point is the oldest and arguably the most famous, there are more than 40 lighthouses along the coast of the Upper Peninsula!

UP Travel has a great map laid out for you to explore the most well-known along the shores, and you can plan a great road trip all the way around the UP if you wanted.

As I was heading home from Whitefish Point I took the Whitefish Scenic Byway and stumbled across this beauty! Point Iroquois Light Station also has a museum but it’s closed on Mondays so I couldn’t go in. You can still wander the grounds and walk the boardwalk down to the shores though.

I also had the chance to finally see the DeTour Reef Light up close! It’s original construction replicated the lighthouse at Whitefish Point, but in the early 1900s it was relocated off shore in the middle of the channel. It’s best seen by boat!

Pickles Bar & Grill

To end the night, you need some good food. Look no further than Pickles Bar & Grill in Brimley, Michigan. They have a pretty extensive menu, including delicious fried pickle spears & chips (which you have to get) as well as burgers, sandwiches and White Fish dishes. Their fish tacos are some of the best I’ve ever had! And I got to enjoy them while sitting outside on the dock overlooking an inlet of Lake Superior. There’s no better way to end the day.

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